(CNSNews.com) – President Obama’s nominee for the post of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander in Afghanistan says he believes a U.S. role post-2014 could be carried out “with a fraction of the troops we have today,” but that one thousand personnel would be insufficient.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford told the Senate Armed Services Committee the primary mission beyond 2014 should be to “train, advise and assist” the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), conduct counter-terrorism operations, and provide support to civilian agencies.
“I believe the Afghan National Security Forces are going to require some level of assistance from the United States as well as coalition partners in order to be successful post-2014,” he said.
Asked by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) whether the U.S. could maintain a robust presence in Afghanistan post-2014 “with a fraction of the troops we have today,” Dunford said, “Absolutely.”
Graham then asked whether a smaller deployment would be required than the number of troops the U.S. has “had in Korea for decades” (currently around 28,000, down from 37,000), to which the general replied, “I believe that’s the case, senator.”
Asked whether one thousand troops would be insufficient, Dunford said, “I do not believe a thousand would be enough.”
The nomination hearing was held on the day talks got underway between the U.S. and Afghanistan on a new bilateral security agreement for the period beyond 2014.
Dunford said he supported Obama’s decision to withdraw 33,000 “surge” forces by September 2012, arguing that the surge had met its objectives of reversing the Taliban’s momentum and increasing the capability and size of the ANSF.
With regard to further reductions of force levels – currently at 68,000 – between now and the end of 2014, he was cautious, saying in a written answer that “the pace of withdrawal over the next 25 months will depend on several variables, including progress of the campaign, the state of the insurgency, and the readiness of the ANSF to assume full security leadership and responsibility to the Afghan government by the end of 2014.”
In reply to a question from the panel, Dunford said that if confirmed, he would make an assessment.
“I’ll look at the strength of the enemy, I’ll look at the capabilities and capacities of the Afghan National Security Forces, judge the capabilities and capacities of the coalition forces and then make a recommendation on what our force contribution ought to be, between now and 2014 – and then beyond as we go into the ‘decade of transformation.’”
(Asked later about this “decade of transformation” phrase, Dunford said it referred to agreements coming out of an international conference in Tokyo last July – that the 2014-2024 period would be used, in his words, to “solidify the gains that we’ve made over the past ten years and address the sustainability of governance, security and development post-2014.”)
‘We are leaving in 2014, period’
Dunford’s point on the pace of troop withdrawal in the coming months depending on “variables” echoed an exchange between Vice President Joe Biden and Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan during a campaign debate last month.
Biden said the U.S. and its ISAF allies have “agreed on a gradual drawdown so we’re out of there by the year—in the year 2014.”
“My friend [Ryan] and the governor [Mitt Romney] say it’s based on conditions, which means it depends. It does not depend for us,” he continued. “We are leaving in 2014, period.”
“We want to make sure that 2014 is successful,” Ryan replied. “That’s why we want to make sure that we give our commanders what they say they need to make it successful.”
“We do agree with the timeline in the transition, but what we – what any administration will do in 2013 is assess the situation to see how best to complete this timeline,” Ryan added. “What we do not want to do –”
“We will leave in 2014,” interjected Biden.
During Thursday’s nomination hearing the committee’s senior Republican, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), expressed concerns about the withdrawal issue, telling Dunford he understood from commanders in Afghanistan that “they believe that we need to keep the 68,000 [troops] there until the 2014 date. And if we start a, quote, ‘steady pace’ withdrawal that we will not be able to accomplish a lot of those missions there.
“If we can’t accomplish the mission, I’m not sure why we should stay,” McCain continued. “And that is something that I think a lot of us have to wrestle with, because if we’re going to start drawing down right away from the 68,000 – which I know that our military leaders believe there is absolutely necessary – and I think we need to look at other options.”
In Kabul, U.S. and Afghan officials began negotiations on a bilateral security agreement (BSA) providing a framework for a continuing U.S. military role beyond 2014.
The talks, which are expected to continue for months, are being led by Afghan ambassador to the U.S. Eklil Hakimi and the U.S. deputy special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, James Warlick.
Among the key issues to be settled, according to Dunford, are the scope of the future military presence and operational authorities, access to Afghan facilities, and securing legal protection for Department of Defense military and civilian personnel.
“I think we would need full [legal] protection for those in uniform,” he said. “I think we’d also need to have appropriate protection for those civilians from our government that are working over there.”
The Afghan government said earlier it would not accept a clause in the BSA granting immunity from prosecutions in Afghan courts to U.S. troops who commit crimes.
Dunford is in line to succeed ISAF commander Gen. John Allen.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that questions surrounding “inappropriate” emails allegedly sent by Allen to a woman in Florida will not affect plans for the transition in Afghanistan.
“The course in Afghanistan is set,” she said during a visit to Australia. “We know what the transition requires of us. We are proceeding with that transition, and will do so on time.”